Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Three Dog Night: Coming Down Our Way (2002)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

The Gig: Three Dog Night
Saturday, September 25, 8:30 P.M.
Red River Arts Festival, Shreveport
Admission: $5

From 1969 to 1974, it was easy to be hard on Three Dog Night.

An anachronistic hit machine at the dawning of the Album-As-Art age, Danny Hutton, Chuck Negron, and Cory Wells made placing three-minute singles at the top of the charts look so simple it was difficult to believe they could be as “important” as “serious” stretcher-outers like, oh, Vanilla Fudge.

Time, however, has a way of winnowing away the chaff. And in retrospect Three Dog Night’s bite has proven the equivalent of its bark. The group’s twenty-plus hits have not only held up but also come to be seen as links in a grand interpretive vocal-group chain going back at least as far as the Mills Brothers.

That tradition has all but disappeared, but group founder Hutton believes that the unmistakable influence of Three Dog Night can still be felt.

“There’s the Three Tenors,” chuckles Hutton. “That’s a pretty blatant cop of us, isn’t it? I realized that right away. ‘Hmmm, three lead singers--I wonder where they got that idea!’”

Three Dog Night used to have three lead singers. The lineup that’s coming to Shreveport’s Red River Arts Festival, however, has two. Hutton and Wells, both sixty, patched up their differences long ago and are the group’s official face. Negron, who tours on his own, remains estranged.

Hutton won’t discuss the reasons, but chances are they have something to do with Negron’s many years of heroin addiction and failed therapy as chronicled by Negron himself in his autobiography Three Dog Nightmare.

It would be nice, of course, if all three would get together again, if only so fans could hear “Old-Fashioned Love Song” comin' down in three-part harmony the way it used to. Alas, such a reunion seems unlikely. Until recently, Negron’s website referred disparagingly to his former comrades as an “oldies” act, and Hutton and wells, whose current press-kit bio doesn’t mention Negron at all, have airbrushed him out of the vintage album cover photos that appear in their new DVD, Three Dog Night Live with the Tennessee Symphony Orchestra (Image). How, one wonders, can people be so heartless? Besides, isn’t two the loneliest number since the number one?

Apparently not always. In addition to the DVD--which, Orwellian erasures notwithstanding, is well shot and creatively edited--Hutton and Wells have also just released Three Dog Night with the London Symphony Orchestra (Image), a studio disc featuring re-recordings of eleven of their biggest hits, orchestral segues worthy of the Moody Blues, and two new songs, one of which, the melancholy country-folk-rock “Sault Ste. Marie,” is as likable as anything else ever recorded under the Three Dog Night name. “It’s kind of an area we don’t usually do,” says Hutton, who sings lead on the song. “But I like that one too--the words, just the whole feel of it.”

Time once was when a songwriter could receive no higher praise--or hope of hitting the financial jackpot--than to be told that Three Dog Night liked one of his songs. From Laura Nyro (“Eli’s Coming”), Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World”), and Paul Williams (“Old-Fashioned Love Song”) to Harry Nilsson (“One”), Randy Newman (“Mama Told Me [Not to Come]”), and Elton John (“Your Song”), the group did more to pound the songs of post-Brill Building pop composers into the head of the American populace than any other act of the last thirty-five years.

Hutton says it was the success of Three Dog Night’s second album, 1969’s Suitable for Framing, that opened the song-pitching floodgates. “We were hot, so we were right at the front of the line. All the songs came to us.

“Now,” he admits, “we’re way, way, way at the end of the line. Celine Dion and people like that are getting all of those songs now.”

Nevertheless, Hutton remains an inveterate song hunter. His current cache of undiscovered gems , he says, is only three songs deep, but he believes that eventually he and Wells will come up with enough new material for at least one more all-original Three Dog Night album.

Meanwhile, he says, they wanted to do the London Symphony Orchestra disc so that people can hear “how we sound now” and that the task of re-recording many of the top-forty era’s most durable radio classics was not daunting. “I’m very proud of it. For old guys, I think we still have chops.”

“On the road,” he says, ‘when we arrive at a venue, I’ll always ask the promoter, ‘Who was here before we were?’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, so-and-so.’ And I’ll say, ‘How were they?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, not so good really.’ Then I’ll think of the group, and they were never any good. Their sound was all studio tricks and effects to start with.”

Not so with Three Dog Night.

“We sounded--and still sound--how we really sounded,” says Hutton. “We never used any tricks.”

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